An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
It's Challenge Week! Our generous donors will match your contribution to SPR when you donate here.

Almost a year after Jan. 6, two journalists release their book 'The Steal'

DAVID GURA, HOST:

Thursday is Jan. 6, a year since a mob overran the U.S. Capitol.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Stop the steal. Stop the steal. Stop the steal.

GURA: Those are supporters of then-President Trump, and that's the rally cry they used while trying to prevent Congress and the vice president from certifying the election of Joe Biden. This past November, an NPR Marist Poll found that 75% of Republicans say Trump has a legitimate claim that fraud changed the results. And we should be explicit about this. He does not have a legitimate claim, and his allegations of widespread fraud are lies. Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague have a new book called "The Steal," documenting the rise of this conspiracy across the country and the lives destroyed by it. And they join us now. Welcome to you both.

MARK BOWDEN: Thank you.

MATTHEW TEAGUE: Thanks for having us.

GURA: Mark, let me start with you. And as you point out in the book, President Trump began laying the groundwork to claim a stolen election all the way back to 2016. I wonder, as you reported this out, how much it caught the folks you talked to by surprise?

BOWDEN: I think that the local officials who were caught up in this were caught very much by surprise. Many of them had been involved in running elections in their states and counties for any number of years, and nothing like this had ever happened, nor had anyone ever really questioned their honesty or integrity. And considering that many of them were Republicans and some of them Trump supporters, I think it was particularly surprising and stinging that they were being accused of falsifying their own election results.

GURA: Much of the book centers on an assortment of strategies by Trump and his allies, particularly Rudy Giuliani. You call it a blunderbuss strategy. What was it?

BOWDEN: In pursuing the goal of overturning the election, Rudy Giuliani and his minions seized, literally, upon any accusation of fraud, no matter how crackpot or disproved. And I think that the point was less to win the argument than it was to amass such a volume of complaint directed toward the election that they could convince people across the country that there was something that smelled about that election.

GURA: Something that smelled - and Matthew, the root of this, as you write in the book, was distrust. Democracy depends on a modicum of trust. They really exploited that.

TEAGUE: They did and in some tragic ways - people whose neighbors turned on them, people they had known their entire lives, like county clerk in Michigan, Sheryl Guy, had people whose literal birth certificates she had signed had turned on her and called her non-American and much worse.

GURA: You mentioned Sheryl Guy. And, Matt, I want to ask you about her in particular. If I remember correctly, she's somebody who made a mistake, acknowledged the mistake, worked quickly to correct that mistake, and, yet it didn't end there. This became a bigger and bigger thing for her.

TEAGUE: That's right. She became a piece of the larger stratagem. She had an error - switched about 3,000 votes, I think it was, from Trump to Biden, immediately realized what she had done. In less than 24 hours she had corrected it and said, I've made a mistake; and that's all it is. It's my fault. But that part was ignored by the political machinery that was determined to find flaws in the electoral process. It didn't matter that she had taken responsibility for the mistake. All that was interesting to Giuliani and Co. was that there were 3,000 votes that had been shifted.

GURA: Matt, President Trump himself plays a funny role in this. A number of the individuals profiled in the book say that they know somebody who was in the room with President Trump or someone they know has heard from President Trump directly. That sort of animates this - doesn't it? - this sense of perceived closeness that these people have to the president as he's fighting all this.

TEAGUE: It does mirror preference by the powerful person as quickly disseminated throughout the country by social media such that you can have people showing up in Detroit or in Phoenix to raise their voices and protest and even riot.

BOWDEN: And if I could add something to that. You know, President Trump did inject himself into a lot of these very local issues. In Pennsylvania he called into a state legislative hearing where they were entertaining claims of fraud. And in Michigan he called individual members of commissions who were responsible for certifying the vote to lobby them to change their votes. He called Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state, as we all know in that famous phone call, to browbeat him, try to get him to find the necessary number of votes so that he could win in Georgia. So there's no question that Trump was very directly steering all of this and in many instances stepped in personally to try to influence the outcome.

GURA: Mark, I wonder sort of where things stand now? There have been all of these audits - this has really dragged on well past after Inauguration Day and well into President Biden's - first-year President Biden's term. There is still a lack of trust in the way elections are administered and the way these machines work. And I wonder where you see us going from here, given the trust - the lack of trust - that was infused because of this?

BOWDEN: Well, I don't see that distrust going away. I mean, certainly it serves the interests of Donald Trump and the people around him to keep it alive and to keep beating the drum. But, you know, I came away from this book optimistic about the future because what we saw was that the American people are not as fundamentally dishonest as Donald Trump. The elections are very decentralized, and local officials are, for the most part, deeply patriotic and honest. And I think, well, it will be very hard - it would be very hard - on a large scale to sway them from doing anything other than counting the votes accurately and reporting them as such.

TEAGUE: You know, I went into it thinking that there would be stark differences between, you know, a red side and a blue side and one versus the other. And that really wasn't the case. Many of the heroes of the book, the people who stood up and said, no; we're going to tell the truth - were conservative people and even Trump supporters themselves. So it's clear that the line between truth and lie is something that runs through every human heart, that it's not just a matter of partisan politics. And that gives me hope for the country.

GURA: That's Matthew Teague and Mark Bowden. Their new book is called "The Steal: The Attempt To Overturn The 2020 Election And The People Who Stopped It." Thanks for joining us.

TEAGUE: Thank you.

BOWDEN: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.